“I’ve been listening, and I’ve been impressed. But the winners today are the teachers in the state of Arizona.”
These are the words of Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey at an April 12 press conference in the state Capitol building in Phoenix. He had just announced a funding plan that he claims will raise Arizona teachers’ pay by 20% by 2020 and raise education funding by US$371 million by 2023.
Arizona Educators United (AEU), the grassroots teachers group that has led the organising, responded by organising a vote among the 45,000 members who belong to the group’s private Facebook page, on supporting a walkout and continuing protests, as has taken place in West Virginia and Oklahoma.
The AEU has been organising “walk-in” days. Teachers, students, parents and community members at more than 1000 schools around the state rallied on April 18 before marching together into school — a clear message that the teachers’ #RedForEd message isn’t receding after Ducey’s proposal.
Just two days before Ducey’s announcement, he had publicly stood by his previous proposal of adding just $34 million to the budget for a 1% pay rise for teachers. “I’m staying out of the political theater,” he smirked.
What could have led the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery and former regional board member of the anti-union Teach for America to have such a change of heart and magically find hundreds of millions of dollars for education in the span of two days?
Ducey's smug “political theatre” comments on April 10 came as more than 300 educators, parents, students and supporters picketed for the second month in a row on the sidewalk outside KTAR radio in Phoenix, where Ducey does a monthly interview.
The KTAR picket was a mere prelude to what happened the next day. AEU organises said more than 100,000 educators, parents, students and community members participated in 1000-plus “walk-ins” on April 11.
Led by rank-and-file educators, large numbers gathered outside schools in the morning. Against the background of honking cars driving by, the red-T-shirted crowds chanted the “#RedForEd” slogan that has come to represent the growing statewide movement for raising educator pay and education funding.
Within days, AEU leader Noah Karvalis was deluged by messages from other educators who wanted to adopt the #RedForEd actions. Many of these teachers are at the core of the AEU, and their actions have grown with their wider support to include the walk-ins around the state.
Thousands of educators around the state are mobilising — and they aren't being told what to do by union leaders. They are becoming rank-and-file leaders for the first time, organising their own schools with, at times, little or no direct involvement from their union, the Arizona Education Association (AEA).
The official AEA leadership has so far supported this movement. But it is the rank-and-file AEU leaders and teachers who have taken the lead.
Through the encouragement of AEU, more than 1000 Arizona schools now have at least one, and sometimes two or three, liaisons whose job is to organise their school. They report back via the AEU website to centralise information, spread it around the state and make it a part of discussions about the next steps in the movement.
One such liaison, Suzanne Reinert, said she had never been “political” or an “activist” in the past. But, she said: “The moment that I heard of this movement and found out that a group of teachers were going to meet outside of the KTAR radio ... I immediately made a commitment to go to that...
“I found out when I was at that rally outside KTAR studio that there are teachers in this state who have been teaching for over 12 years and have a master’s degree, and they’re making $38,000. They’re making less today than they were in 2015.
“I have a problem with that. I’m out here for our future because the students who we teach are our future.”
Mainstream media like The Arizona Republic splashed headlines claiming, “Ducey proposes 20 percent pay increase for teachers by 2020”. But AEU leaders are very critical of the governor’s “plan”.
Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade maths and science teacher in Phoenix, said of Ducey's proposal: “It isn’t an actual plan, but rather a hastily thrown together one-pager. It doesn’t address salary questions beyond the narrow definition of ‘teachers’, which omits academic coaches, counsellors and support staff.
“Therefore, it doesn’t fully meet our demands in regards to pay. This proposal doesn't introduce any new money, but rather implies that funds will be shifted around and removed from other areas, which could have an immensely negative impact.
“I do think that the fact that the governor proposed this plan publicly is a strong indicator of the #RedforEd’s movement and power. Ducey failed to meet with our negotiating team prior to releasing this ‘plan’.
“Therefore, I believe it was meant as a last-ditch effort to silence the noise we have so powerfully created.”
Karvelis explained: “Ducey saw that we have power. And he saw that the community supports us. That’s what made this happen.
“This is the same governor who called us ‘political operatives’ just days before — now he’s saying he has been ‘impressed’ by our movement and unveiled this proposal. It was the power of our grassroots movement and the strategic actions that we have taken so far that brought us to this moment.”
The AEU’s original demands include:
* A 20% raise for all teaching and certified staff for the 2018-2019 school year that is built into the salary schedule at the district level and mandated by the state.
* Competitive wages for all classified staff based on the inflation rate of the previous year.
* Return school funding to 2008 levels, along with decreasing class sizes to 23 students-to-one teacher.
* No new tax cuts until Arizona per-pupil spending reaches the national average, which includes not reapportioning tax revenue in a way that hurts low socioeconomic status families and individuals.
* Yearly raises until the Arizona teacher salary reaches the national average.
Arizona public schools have $1.1 billion less in funding than in 2008. That’s no wonder when one takes into account the regressive nature of the tax system in Arizona.
The Arizona Center for Economic Progress said 74% of Arizona’s corporations pay $50 or less in tax every year. These corporations are projected to pay $949 million less corporate taxes in 2019 than they did in 2007. Meanwhile, Arizona's lowest income families pay $12.50 in state and local taxes for every $100 they earn, while Arizona’s millionaires only pay $5.70 for every $100 in income.
The money is clearly there, but it will require taxing the rich to pay for the education crisis that the rich and powerful and their politicians created.
Teachers and other labour supporters around the country are showing solidarity with Arizona. For example, Seattle Education Association members voted unanimously at a union meeting to declare Wednesdays #RedforEd days. Teachers will wear red union shirts, take group pictures and post them on social media to show their support.
On April 11, the day of the walk-ins, Dylan Wegela, a second-year seventh-grade Social Studies teacher in Phoenix, was the final speaker at a meeting of several hundred educators held that afternoon at his school district headquarters.
Referencing conversations he had with strikers from West Virginia and elsewhere at the recent Labor Notes conference in Chicago, Wegela summarised what it would take to win this struggle: “I spoke to teachers who organised West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma. There’s one thing they kept telling us ... [that] Arizona is more organised than they were when they called their work actions.
“What that says to me is that the path to victory is right out in front of us, and all we have to do is take it. And as the momentum grows, it’s essential that we continue to put the pressure on the state to address these issues immediately.
“Because if we don't, then when is the time going to be? This is our time! This is our moment!”
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]